BUSH HAS PRIORITIES BACKWARD: NORTH KOREA IS A GREATER THREAT THAN
Madeleine Albright is the former U.S. secretary of State. She spoke
with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Jan. 9. Albright is the
Western leader who has spent the most time with North Korean leader Kim
NATHAN GARDELS: How did we get from October, 2000 -- when you were
in Pyongyang having a dialogue with Kim Jong Il -- to the present situation
of sharply renewed confrontation with North Korea threatening to make
more nuclear bombs?
Is the culprit here North Korean stealth or the hardline of the Bush administration,
which until this week refused to talk with North Korea?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: It is a combination. After I came back from
North Korea in October, 2000, we began very intense discussions to follow
through on the immense technical details of verification so that we could
be sure the North Koreans did what they promised. A follow-up meeting
of experts in Kuala Lumpur proved unsatisfactory, and then we ran out
of time as the Clinton administration ended. Indeed, one of North Korea's
problems is that its timing is off.
We briefed (then-incoming Secretary of State Colin) Powell and (National
Security Advisor Condoleezza) Rice about where we were. They seemed very
interested in picking up the cards we left on the table. But, then, early
in the Bush administration, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung came to
Washington to press for his ''sunshine policy'' of engagement with the
North. But the White House changed signals during the state visit. Powell
announced that the new administration was instead going to have a policy
While it was a mistake for the Bush administration to not pick up the
cards, the crisis today was created by Kim Jong Il, who decided to secretly
push ahead with his nuclear program despite Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy
and the Clinton administration's support of it.
GARDELS: What is Kim Jong Il's objective? Is he trying to capitalize
on anti-American sentiment in the South to drive a wedge between it and
the United States?
ALBRIGHT: It is hard to read Kim Jong Il. He is not a nut, but
he is pretty ham-handed and a tough negotiator. Brinkmanship is a North
Korean specialty. His ultimate goal is to be recognized by the United
States and to work out a non-aggression agreement with us. That is clearly
what he wanted from the Clinton administration. Obviously he misread both
the Clinton and Bush administrations by keeping something in his back
pocket -- the uranium enrichment program -- for further negotiations.
As for driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea, I don't
think he is sophisticated enough to work out that kind of strategy. In
any case, the anti-American sentiment did not build in South Korea until
this recent election period, well after Kim Jong Il started his uranium
enrichment program. It seems he would prefer to deal with the United States
alone and treat the South as an adjunct -- as with the armistice that
ended the Korean War. But the U.S. view is that any lasting arrangement
on the peninsula must be based on agreement as well between the North
and South. As far as we are concerned, any agreements must have the South
Korean signature on them.
GARDELS: Why not agree to a non-aggression pact, as North Korea
is asking for?
ALBRIGHT: When North Korean Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok came to the
United States in October, 2000, to invite President Clinton to visit,
we worked out a communique that said the United States and North Korea
do not have hostile intentions toward each other.
I understand that the South Koreans are now suggesting that a big step
forward in defusing the present crisis would be to reaffirm this so-called
Albright-Jo agreement. There is no reason today, as far as I am concerned,
for the United States not to indicate, again, that we have no hostile
intentions toward North Korea if it doesn't have such intentions toward
The communique, dated Oct. 12, 2000, reads in part: ''Recognizing that
improving ties is a natural goal in relations among states and that better
relations would benefit both nations in the 21st century ... the two sides
stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other
and confirmed the commitment of both governments to make every effort
in the future to build a new relationship free from past enmity.''
That is where we left it when the Bush administration took office.
GARDELS: The diplomatic objective now is to get back to this kind
of formal statement of non-aggression as the basis for further agreement?
ALBRIGHT: Yes. And then we must demand they dismantle and end their
nuclear program. I think we are at last moving in that direction again
since the Bush administration, after meeting this week with South Korean
and Japanese envoys, agreed to talk with North Korea. Dialogue is not
appeasement. You can't expect the other party, whoever it is, to understand
what you want unless you can state it to them directly and clearly.
Now, though, since North Korea has abused U.S. trust, it is important
to go beyond the so-called ''Framework Agreement'' (U.S. and allied energy
aid to North Korea in exchange for ending its nuclear program--ed.) with
an agreement for more intrusive inspection and verification that the North
Korean nuclear program is being terminated. The Bush administration will
not agree, as Secretary Powell has put it, ''to buy the same football
GARDELS: You are the only Western leader who has spent a significant
amount of time with Kim Jong Il. (Former British Prime Minister) Maggie
Thatcher once said of Mikhail Gorbachev that ''I can do business with
this man.'' Can the United States do business with Kim?
ALBRIGHT: Not in the same way, of course. Gorbachev was a reformer
who was changing the Communist system in the Soviet Union. There is no
indication that Kim Jong Il is doing any such thing.
I would say rather that there is no reason not to talk to him. We talked
to Stalin and Mao, after all.
I have no illusions about Kim. He was raised and trained in a totally
closed, Marxist system, and he believes his own propaganda. He lives in
this completely unreal world where he, like his father before him, is
glorified in statues. Every North Korean has a lapel pin with his picture
on it. It is a mega-personality cult.
In dealing with him, I found that underneath his bravado is a recognition
that he has a dysfunctional economy. Though publicly blaming the weather
for famine, he knows that the system doesn't work. He told me he was looking
at other economic models, including the Swedish model -- a clearly ridiculous
He knows that ultimately he is sitting on a system that can't work. He
is isolated but not uninformed. He watches CNN. He has computers. While
he lives in his own little world, he knows what is going on out there
-- even if he twists the information in his own warped way.
GARDELS: What would be the impact on East Asia if North Korea's
nuclear ambitions are not curbed?
ALBRIGHT: The regional implications are what make this situation
so dangerous. For the last 40 years we have tried to avoid an arms race
in Asia. That is why the United States has forces in South Korea and has
provided a defense umbrella for Japan so it would not rearm.
While recognizing the growing importance of China as a regional and global
power, we don't want it to become the policeman of Asia.
An unchecked North Korea will both spark an arms race -- because an ultimately
unified, nuclear Korea that pushes U.S. forces out will force the Japanese
to go nuclear -- as well as draw China into a more militarized role as
top guarantor of security in the region. In short, it will undo the balance
of power, in which the United States has been a key player, that has enabled
stability and prosperity there.
A rogue North Korea is a stone that will cause as many ripples across
East Asia as Iraq will across the Middle East.
GARDELS: Clinton said recently that when he gave his farewell briefing
to incoming president George Bush, Osama bin Laden and North Korea were
near the top of his list of threats to the United States, while Iraq was
at the bottom. Is North Korea a greater threat than Iraq?
ALBRIGHT: By all standards, North Korea looks more imminently dangerous
than Iraq. We thought they were dangerous during the Clinton years. Their
recent actions have made them even more dangerous.
North Korea already has a primitive nuclear weapon or weapons. It has
mid-range missiles. And if it unfreezes the fuel rods at the Yongbyan
facility, it can produce 50 or so nuclear weapons in the next few years,
positioning it to be a purveyor of fissionable material as well as missiles.
And they have an unfriendly attitude toward everybody.
So, we know North Korea has a ruthless dictator, nuclear capability and
a million-man army. On the other hand, what is emerging from the U.N.
inspections in Iraq is that we don't know what Saddam has. All the reasons
President Bush has for regime change in Iraq I agree with, but why now
in face of these other threats?
The ''how'' is also a question with Iraq. Saddam is already contained,
he is already in a box. My concern is that the sparks from exploding that
box might ignite the oil-rich, flammable region.
Further, I actually believed President Bush when he said that Al Qaeda
and Osama bin Laden where his top priorities, but that has now been supplanted
Clearly, there is some confusion over priorities. President Bush seems
to have them reversed, with Iraq at the top and the more operational threats
-- Al Qaeda and North Korea -- at the bottom.
I have to also say that I am surprised that the military option against
North Korea -- though a horrendous one -- has been taken off the table.
I don't believe, in the end, that there is a military solution to the
North Korean crisis. But if there is one thing I learned as secretary
of State, you don't take options off the table.
GARDELS: Paradoxically, now that Bush has agreed to talk with North
Korea, his policy is the same as the Clinton policy he once rejected.
In the end, is it the only course?
ALBRIGHT: Yes, I think it is. It is unfortunate that two years
have been lost in dealing with this issue of such critical import to American
(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 1/9/03)